“I hope, wherever you come from,
there is someone who holds your story.
Someone who remembers you when you
were knee-high to a grasshopper.”
–excerpt from “Who Holds Your Story” by David Pitonyak
As a writer, I tend to notice, document, hoard interesting bits of human lives into my brain, and save them in a private stock pile like a squirrel. Small notes in my phone for later, scrawled reflections or observations in the margins of agendas, notebooks. In my phone is a running tab on observational human behavior that I found interesting, troubling, curious.
There was the man at the YMCA who swam wearing multiple gaudy gold rings and splendid gold chains tangled in his thick, salt and pepper chest hair. Back and forth in never ending breaststrokes, his jewelry would catch the sun in the overhead pool skylight and glint across the lanes.
There was the exasperated mom I overheard in a coffee shop lamenting to a friend that her daughter was going to lose her full ride if she didn’t get her shit together and get over that eating disorder phase.
The single mom at the airport force feeding a breakfast sandwich to her three children, alternating bites like baby birds in a nest as the TSA line inched up.
The post on a neighborhood Up For Grabs Facebook page offering used, natural deodorant, with the disclaimer that it caused a rash.
While these anonymous observations are collected innocently for no apparent reason, other than what it shows me about the curious nature of humanity, there’s a distinct difference in documenting lives of people we know, people we support, people we provide services to more intimately.
One of the more challenging conversations we’ve had at Starfire over the past year is the importance of storytelling and the delicate line we must tow in telling someone else’s story. The question of “who holds your story” tugs at me and is especially important for nonprofits to consider. Are we crafting people’s stories to fit our own purpose? How do we, as nonprofit leaders, as social media marketers, as fundraisers and donor relations professionals and grant writers, as public relations professionals, share a story that is honest and truthful and respectful and genuine? How do we tell the truth of the matter, give real life context, without violating the depths of someone’s personal experience with trauma or pain?
Furthermore, should the holder of someone’s story be a human service organization? Is a family’s story held sacred when it’s also needed for grant reports and to leveraging funding? Where is the line? How do we know if we’ve crossed it?
Starfire uses “a secure online database powered by University of Cincinnati Center for Clinical & Translational Science and Training” to document and measure the outcomes of our work. That’s how we put it in grants. Of course, this is important to do: is what we say we are doing getting done? Are people with disabilities becoming more connected to the community? Are people with disabilities finding jobs? Are creative projects being launched? Are we taking people with developmental disabilities lives seriously with our time together? But there’s also the real story of our work that documentation simply cannot tell. Things like: spontaneity, intentionality, beauty and creativity. Or the opposite – intolerable experiences like getting tangled up in “service snafus” or emergency respite or litigation.
Internally we wrestle with how to share this work – the behind the scenes work of Community Builders, the brave first steps in creating a project, and the new work of supporting families leading creative projects in their own communities. We send emails and newsletters and produce Annual Reports, produce videos, lead trainings, launch podcasts, and write blogs. We make a commitment each time: to honor each person’s story truthfully, delicately, and with the expressed permission and participation of those sharing their lives with us. Because these stories don’t belong to Starfire. Sure, our fingerprints are all over the scene, but they aren’t stories that we as a nonprofit organization can hold. These stories are held by people – as ordinary as you and I, stories that are held by moms and dads and brothers and sisters, coworkers, neighbors and friends. A snapshot in time celebrating the struggle of making something good, something more, happen together in the world.